Feminism and “The Left” Need Ellen Willis’ Ideas More Than Ever


Between the wars and the economic meltdowns and the national security scandals, the past decade has seen progress for liberal causes: Barack Obama’s historic two-term presidency (which still holds some symbolic value despite the President’s complicity in the aforementioned horrors); a national healthcare plan that, if deeply flawed, is still more comprehensive than any before; a rapidly accelerating LGBT rights movement, etc. But still, liberal politics is in trouble. In the few years since Occupy Wall Street came and went, attracting plenty of news coverage but effecting little lasting change, a commitment to liberal politics feels increasingly futile — not to mention dreary as fuck.

This is a necessarily oversimplified version of the problem Ellen Willis — the feminist cultural critic who was the first to cover rock music for the New Yorker — identified in her final, most ambitious, and tragically unfinished work. A book project with the working title “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics,” it promised to use psychoanalysis to rescue the nation’s political imagination from the conservative hell into which it descended after the radical ’60s. A 35-page excerpt of the work in progress is published in the new Essential Ellen Willis anthology, edited by Willis’ daughter, the journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz. It makes for fascinating reading.

As her partner, the activist and critic Stanley Aronowitz, notes in his introduction to the excerpt, Willis embarked on this project around the turn of the millennium. By then, the Clinton ’90s had failed to offer any respite from the puritanism of the Reagan ’80s, and Willis concluded that the left could only triumph over the right by making radicalism more appealing — exhilarating, even — to the American unconscious than conservatism. Her daring thesis is this:

By looking at American cultural conflict and its international context through a radical Freudian lens, I mean to revive a long-neglected question: suppose a radical democratic politics that affirms freedom and pleasure is not a summons to moral corruption, not dangerous utopian nonsense, not even simply an ethical or spiritual possibility, but an expression of needs anchored in the body and, in the long run, a condition of human survival?

From its grounding in feminism and sexual liberation to its fierce opposition to the authoritarianism that governs both the state and the family, the book might well have been the ultimate expression of a unique worldview Willis spent four decades building, piece by meticulously constructed piece. For those who have already devoured her out-of-print, recently republished, and newly compiled essay collections, this “Coda” is the most (but certainly not the only) compelling reason to track down The Essential Ellen Willis.

Reading Ellen Willis’ criticism has always been simultaneously invigorating and depressing for me — invigorating as a reminder that feminist thought can be radical and liberating and nuanced, but depressing when viewed against a 21st-century feminist landscape that too often prizes self-purification and bad-faith consensus over critical thinking and powerful ideas, which have come to seem like two more nice things we can’t have anymore. (Willis’ other specialty, music criticism, often seems to be lapsing into similarly worrisome orthodoxy.)

In “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics,” she argues that conservatism triumphed over leftist radicalism “by appealing to Americans’ fear and guilt, arguing that ‘hedonism,’ ‘narcissism,’ ‘baby-killing,’ and so on amount to moral anarchy.” In order to not only counter this authoritarianism, but also pursue a political agenda that serves humanity’s needs for freedom and pleasure, Willis urged the formation of a Freudian left. She envisioned a movement fueled by the “Freudian radical” Wilhelm Reich, who broke from Freud by embracing the libido as “benign, life-enhancing and self-regulating” — and attributing society’s most sadomasochistic, authoritarian tendencies to its repression. Yet Willis acknowledged a major obstacle: the left’s wholesale rejection of psychoanalysis. For this, she blames her feminist and gay rights movement allies, who (understandably, she allows) equate psychoanalysis with gender and sexual “essentialism.

Willis also identifies two more worrisome trends among her political allies, observations that would only prove more relevant in the years since her death in 2006. In 21st-century feminism, she laments a thoroughly compromised, post-“family values” stance that apologizes for abortion and refuses to question patriarchal constructs like marriage and the nuclear family. Meanwhile, she sees the “postmodern left” fracturing into “a multicultural, pluralist ‘micropolitics’ of diverse movements focusing on particular groups or issues.”

She denounces the latter as a “dogmatic rejection of systemic theory — in effect, the denial of any structural links between the political system, the economy, and people’s personal and sexual lives.” This anticipated what we tend to call “social justice” movements today: there’s a creeping consensus on the left, embedded in that trend of “micropolitics,” that our identities are more important in shaping our politics than our intellects. This is a deeply pessimistic assumption, because it implies that we can never transcend our biology or upbringing.

In Willis’ view, these two extreme ends of the progressive spectrum have effectively done the same thing: they’ve given up on the possibility of large-scale, revolutionary political change, which is why their efforts reek of obligation and futility. This analysis would surely have seemed insightful at the dawn of the 21st century, but in 2014, with the #CancelColbert crew to the left of us and Democratic defenders of drones and NSA spying to the right, it reads as downright prescient. It’s also an indictment on the orthodoxy of today’s liberal ideologies.

But then, Wills never hesitated to break with feminist or liberal orthodoxy — or test her own beliefs. She was the rare critic who never let a convenient stance — the kind that helps a bill pass or earns thousands of “likes” on Tumblr — trump what logic and experience and intuition and research told her was true. She pioneered what came to be called sex-positive feminism, but also expressed frustration when the movement’s spokespeople ignored the connections between sexual predilections and societal values. And the most stunning essay of her career, 1977’s “Next Year in Jerusalem,” found Willis battling her own deep-seated religious skepticism out of an obligation to do the hard work of finding the truth and living by it. She was, as her colleague and my onetime professor, the critic Susie Linfield, pointed out, no contrarian; her real enemy was intellectual dishonesty.

But Willis also identified herself, a little grudgingly, as an optimist. She insisted on the power of reason, and the possibility of positive systemic change. Certainly, optimism and reason and the belief that change is possible are all requirements for embarking on a project with the revolutionary ambitions of “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics.”

It’s a tragedy that Willis never got to finish the book, because conservatism and repression are stronger forces than ever, even in Obama’s America, with a sexually puritan right driving the Republican agenda and liberals continuing to cede ground on vital issues like abortion. Willis could have contributed so much more to this discussion were she still alive, but nevertheless, the few dozen pages of “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics” included in The Essential Ellen Willis are a gift to — and perhaps even a road map for — anyone who longs for a radical, imaginative, energizing new conversation about American politics.